The ham-handed Republican attempts to dismantle the health-care system—the “socialism” warnings, the appeals to the selfishness of privileged white folks—have only reinforced the public’s support for government taking care of its citizens. It was telling how, in Monday night’s televised debate between Graham and Cassidy and Senators Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, Graham fell right into a trap, unintentionally proving his opponents’ point about what Americans want. When Sanders asked, “Do you know what the most popular health insurance program in America is? It’s not the private insurance industry,” Graham jumped in like an overeager schoolchild: “It’s Medicare,” he said.
Both Republicans and Democrats have badly misunderstood what makes Obamacare unpopular. What people don’t like are the inequities that still prevail in our health-care system, not the fact that “government is too involved.” When Vox’s Sarah Kliff visited Whitley County, Kentucky, to talk to Trump voters who benefited from the ACA, she heard complaints from those buying private insurance with their subsidies that their deductibles were still too high for them to access care. Others, not surprisingly, were angry that the very poor got Medicaid, while they had to pay monthly premiums for care they rarely used. But that anger hasn’t turned them against the program. Medicaid expansion—the “socialized” part of the ACA—remains wildly popular, with 84 percent of those polled by Kaiser Family Foundation saying it’s important to keep the expansion.
The ACA’s means-testing sets up a hierarchy of plans that at times seem calculated to fuel resentment of those getting “free stuff.” It also requires hours of work—I write from personal experience, as a freelancer who has attempted to explain repeatedly that my income varies from month to month and year to year—to prove to the system that you are not getting away with something you haven’t qualified for.
The ways that people have tried to patch the gaps that remain in Obamacare, through charities and crowdfunding, have also highlighted its inequities. As Helaine Olen recently wrote in The Atlantic, charities, too, are often means-testing applicants, while crowdfunding introduces a new kind of means-testing—“means-testing for empathy,” as writer Patrick Blanchfield told me recently. Most GoFundMe or YouCaring campaigns for medical bills don’t go viral; only around ten percent of them met their stated goals. For those who have a big social media audience, or those whose particularly compelling story takes off, crowdfunding might work. But the glut of such campaigns leaves people weighing story against story, deciding who is going to get their donations. It’s health care by popularity contest.
By focusing on the not-good poll numbers for Obamacare, politicians and pundits have missed the whole point: The law didn’t go too far for Americans to get behind. It didn’t go far enough. And while single-payer opponents continue to evoke rationed care, long lines and wait times, and other problems that supposedly plague England or Canada, the public seems well aware that the reality for many Americans is far worse. By their very complaints, the pundits and politicians continually highlight the inequality in the system; the complainers are those who can afford the kind of care that comes with personal attention, privacy, shorter waits, and no rubbing elbows with undesirables.
To move forward, then, the single-payer movement should double down on what we learned through this fight: that expanding Medicaid made it harder, not easier, to claim that the program is a “giveaway” to undeserving poor. The willingness of people with disabilities to claim and hold the spotlight, as the New Republic’s Sarah Jones has written, has helped to challenge our preconceptions about who relies on Medicaid and to make politicians confront those who will not be served by a market-based program. And the willingness, finally, of politicians to fight publicly for single-payer rather than mournfully shake their heads and say it will never happen expands the range of policies that even establishment media is willing to discuss.
Most important, we have learned that the old fear-mongering tropes about socialism are no longer enough to whip Republican votes for a major plank of their own platform. If anything, the successful fight should help progressives shed their fears of boldly advocating for what they know is right and working to change public sentiment without endlessly obsessing over potential political pitfalls.
Barbarism, to Graham and his ilk, seems to be the idea that they would lose their right to segregated, high-end care to some undeserving poor person of color. To the rest of us, though, barbarism is a system that decides who deserves to live or die by the color of their skin, the money in their bank account, the hours that they work, or their ability to work at all. This is now an American consensus. And if socialism is the medicine our system needs, the country is ready to embrace it—even by name.